Photos by Michelle White, School of Mechanical & Materials Engineering
Tomas Diaz de la Rubia, of the Livermore National Laboratory, was a recent speaker at the WSU Pullman campus. His story is part of a series on climate change from the April 11th print edition of WSU Today. 
Tomas Diaz de la Rubia believes that the world’s
best hope for future energy demand lies in the development of nuclear fission and fusion. Speaking at the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in March, Diaz de la Rubia detailed research taking place at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Showing estimates that worldwide electric power consumption may more than double by 2050 – and that roughly 80 percent of current electricity use comes from burning fossil fuels – Diaz de la Rubia said it is imperative that governments develop sustainable energy technologies. Currently, the world produces about 450 exajoules of energy – the equivalent of ten billion tons of oil – per year leading to an annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide of about 27 gigatons, he said. As global demand for energy increases, it puts huge pressure on natural resources, the global ecosystem and international political stability.

“So, the question is how to stabilize CO2?” said Diaz de la Rubia. “We need to change the mix from fossil fuels to renewable and non-carbon emitting energy sources.”

The answer has been suggested in a range of new technologies from biofuels to solar, wind and geothermal energy. Another possibility is carbon capture and storage for “cleaning up” coal-fired power plants. Although the dynamics are still being worked out, the idea is to capture CO2 emissions from burning coal and pump them back into the ground.

But Diaz de la Rubia’s main research efforts center on nuclear fission and fusion. “Today, we are seeing a nuclear renaissance,” he said. “But we have to find a way to resolve the problems of nuclear waste and nuclear weapons proliferation.”  One of the ways his team proposes to deal with those issues is by creating new nuclear fuel forms. “We want to burn the uranium totally – to convert all of it into fissile products,” he said. “That way there will be no proliferation potential. And it will decay faster – 50 to 100 years instead of millions of years.”

His team is also in the process of building a complex facility that will use lasers to create a fusion reaction from water. “We are trying to build a miniature sun on Earth,” he said. “When you bring two isotopes of hydrogen together, you create fusion and generate neutrons and alpha particles that release vast amounts of energy. With fusion …seventy grams of carbon-free water could provide as much energy as a super tanker full of oil.”

Although Diaz de la Rubia says there are significant challenges to building this power plant, they expect to be successful by 2011 or 2012. “When this happens, I think it will change the way policy makers think about fusion,” he said. “It will happen long before magnetic fusion has its day in the sun.”